This Op-Ed appeared in the Philadelphia Inquirer
By Kate Michelman and Carol E. Tracy
Pennsylvania women have the power to change the future of their state, and their own lives, by voting in next month’s election. The question is, do they understand the high stakes that make their participation vital?
In the midst of political campaigns, with the inevitable preposterous claims and accusations flying around, it is easy to dismiss politics as a game, or to think that one vote won’t make a difference. That’s precisely what the people who hold political power in Pennsylvania hope you will think.
The reality is very different. The women of Pennsylvania, more than five million strong, can and should be the decisive force in electing the policymakers who will determine the laws on issues like economic security, reproductive rights, domestic violence, and education. These issues affect women more than they do men. And poll after poll shows that women care more about these issues than men do.
The reason our laws have been out of step with what would be best for women is simple:
Women have not voted as if their lives depend on it.
The women of the commonwealth need to think about these questions while deciding whether voting is worth the effort:
Is it time for equal pay to become a reality? Despite all the evidence of a pay gap between men and women, Pennsylvania hasn’t updated equal-pay laws in more than 50 years.
Is it time that so-called family-friendly values make their way to the workplace? Our elected officials talk a big game about support for families. Yet in most of Pennsylvania today, pregnant women don’t have the right to get a drink of water or take a bathroom break, and after giving birth, they don’t have the right to pump breast milk at work. Bills introduced to correct these discriminatory practices have languished in committee for months.
Is it time to stop discriminating against poor and working women? For four years, the Pennsylvania legislature has passed measure upon measure that disproportionately burdens poor and working women. Nowhere is this clearer than in the area of reproductive health. The simple truth is that women cannot control their own lives if they can’t control their own reproductive decisions.
You don’t need to take our word for it. Experts repeatedly confirm that Pennsylvania’s record on women is abominable. The Center for American Progress recently gave Pennsylvania a C-minus grade on women’s issues, ranking us 28th among the 50 states in the treatment of women.
Things can be different.
The Women’s Health Caucus, a bipartisan, bicameral caucus of the Pennsylvania General Assembly, led by Rep. Dan Frankel (D., Allegheny) and Sens. Judy Schwank (D., Berks) and Chuck McIlhinney (R., Bucks), is addressing a wide range of legal and policy barriers to improve the health and rights of women through the Pennsylvania Agenda for Women’s Health.
The agenda is a bold, pro-choice, pro-woman state legislative package designed to proactively address the health needs and concerns of women in our state.
The first two phases of the agenda include bills that, if passed, would provide protections for pregnant women, female veterans, victims of domestic violence, nursing mothers, and much, much more. Pennsylvania recently held a hearing to review evidence of the gender pay gap and consider corrective legislation.
Many other bills have been introduced and are awaiting action. Whether these legislative initiatives become reality depends on the lawmakers and politicians we vote into office. They are the ones who will pass these bills.
Here’s the bottom line: If women want to make progress in Pennsylvania, they cannot stay home this November and wait for 2016 to vote.
In 2008, 64 percent of registered female voters turned up at the polls to cast a vote for president. Then, for the gubernatorial election in 2010, only 44 percent of registered female voters showed up. In Pennsylvania, unmarried female, minority, and young voters fail to vote in midterm elections at a rate almost twice that of older, married, male voters.
This means women aren’t represented in elections that decide who is governor, who sits in the General Assembly, and who represents us in Congress. Meanwhile, it’s the results of mid-term elections that have the most direct impact on our lives.
With so much at stake, women need to take action. Taking action means becoming educated on the issues and voting.
WomenVote PA (www.womenvotepa.org), the education and mobilization initiative of the Women’s Law Project, was formed to do just that – provide women with a resource to learn about the issues directly affecting them and encourage them to exercise their hard-earned right to vote.
The message to the women of Pennsylvania is simple:
Don’t let your silence this Election Day dictate the outcomes for the coming years.
If you stay home this November, your apathy will be read as approval, and nothing will change. Get informed and get to the polls. Spread the word among friends, neighbors, and coworkers that voting does matter and will make a difference. Just think what we could accomplish for Pennsylvania’s women if that happened.
Kate Michelman is cochair of WomenVote PA, president emerita of NARAL Pro-Choice America, and author of “With Liberty and Justice for All: A Life Spent Protecting the Right to Choose.” Carol E. Tracy is executive director of the Women’s Law Project (www.womenslawproject.org) and cochair of WomenVote PA.